Night Raids: Disrupting or Fueling the Afghan Insurgency?


June 17, 2011

“There are now nights when Rehmatullah’s children hear the distant thrum of a helicopter and rush into his room. He consoles them, but admits he needs solace himself. ‘I know I should be too old for it,’ he says, ‘but this war has made me afraid of the dark.'”
— Anand Gopal, “Afraid of the Dark in Afghanistan”

The signature tactic of the U.S.-led kill/capture campaign in Afghanistan, “night raids” against suspected Taliban leaders are touted by the U.S. military as one of the most effective means of putting pressure on the Taliban.

During these operations, units under the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) search private residences — based on intelligence or tips — for suspected insurgents.

Night Raids by the Numbers

U.S. officials maintain that a recent spike — units are conducting at least six times as many night raids as two years ago — has been critical to disrupting insurgents’ networks and operative capacity. Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh says he encouraged their increased use and tells FRONTLINE, “These special operations are the most useful way of hurting the enemy.”

Why the Backlash?

Botched night raids and harrowing accounts from Afghan citizens have raised serious questions about the precision of intelligence and the rate of civilian casualties. Last year the Times of London exposed a horrifying night raid gone wrong in which Afghan investigators found that Special Forces dug bullets out of the bodies of two pregnant Afghan women in an attempted cover-up.

Night raids are also controversial because they violate Afghan cultural norms. Tactics that are considered particularly offensive include troops entering a home where women are present or using dogs (which are considered impure) in their search.

The U.S. military itself has acknowledged night raids’ political liability. In a March 2010 directive, then-ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal wrote that night raids can leave Afghans feeling “deeply violated and dishonored, making winning their support that much more difficult.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long opposed the raids, calling for their end altogether. In November 2010, he told The Washington Post that the raids were an affront on the sanctity of Afghan homes and further fueled the insurgency. “The Afghan people don’t like these raids,” he said. “If there is any raid it has to be done by the Afghan government within the Afghan laws.” This past March, the accidental killing of Karzai’s cousin in a night raid further escalated tensions.

Earlier this year, the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, concluded that: “On the ground, and in the minds of the Afghan public, night raids remain lethal, feral, and absurdly imprecise.” And a 2010 report from the Open Society Institute identified due process problems and a “lack of accountability” for night raids gone wrong. Because the operations are conducted outside the NATO chain of command, the detention process is less open to public scrutiny.

New Rules and Regulations

In December 2010, Gen. David Petraeus issued revised guidelines which remain classified, but the Wall Street Journal reports that safeguards include:

  • · Notifying family or village elders of where they can get information about detained individuals
  • · Providing receipts for items seized in the operations
  • · Providing a claims process for villagers to request compensation for damaged property

The directive also stresses the importance of coordinating the operations with Afghan soldiers. As Gen. Petraeus tells FRONTLINE, Afghan soldiers now lead the “call-outs” when forces announce themselves before entering homes.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez told FRONTLINE that night raids are assessed very carefully to “ensure that the cost-benefit is worth the pain and agony of the Afghan people.” He added, “The payoff has been worth it in many cases.” And some statistics indicate the situation may be improving: Civilian deaths in coalition operations have declined in the last year according to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, though these statistics have come under criticism for reporting only a portion of civilian deaths from U.S. raids.

But others worry that until there is a fundamental change in Afghan public perception, night raids will undermine U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and further fuel the insurgency by creating a newer, more radical generation of Taliban leaders. As President Karzai’s chief of staff Mohammad Daudzai told FRONTLINE:

“You have a village, people have a very peaceful life, and in the middle of the night, people come, surround their village, search a few houses and take a few prisoners, and in that scuffle a few of them are killed, a woman disgraced. The next day, what do you expect? The entire village youth becomes Taliban.”

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